Kusserow on Compliance: Ninth Circuit reinstates unnecessary admissions whistleblower case

Federal Court established grounds for “medical necessity” fraud cases

A compliance high-risk area worthy of attention

On March 23, 2020, the Ninth Circuit reinstated a False Claims Act (ACA) “whistleblower” suit alleging a hospital and various physicians orchestrated medically unnecessary inpatient admissions resulting in the submission of more than $1.2 million in false claims to Medicare. This reversed the District Court ruling that FCA allegations failed because “subjective medical opinions…cannot be proved objectively false.”

The Circuit Court decision follows others that established the lack of “medical necessity” claims can proceed under the FCA. The qui tam relator in the case alleged that certain admissions to the hospital were not medically necessary and were in fact contraindicated by the patients’ medical records and the hospital’s admission criteria. As a result, the hospital allegedly submitted, or caused to be submitted, Medicare claims that falsely certified that patients’ hospitalizations were medically necessary. The relator was a nurse who reported 65 admissions that “failed to satisfy the hospital’s own admissions criteria” and noted that the admission rate from related nursing homes with was over 80 percent during the relevant time period. The nursing home operator had acquired fifty percent ownership in the hospital that resulted in a spike in admissions from those facilities. After repeatedly attempts to bring the issue to the attention of management, she was fired.

The Court held that a physician’s clinical opinion must be judged by the same standard as any other representation, including whether the physician: (1) knows the clinical opinion to be false; or (2) renders the opinion in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity. This means that a physician’s certification that inpatient hospitalization was “medically necessary” can be false or fraudulent as any opinion that is not honestly held. In short, a false certification of medical necessity can therefore give rise to FCA liability.

Compliance officers at any hospital should make this message known to the executive leadership and medical staff.



Richard P. Kusserow served as DHHS Inspector General for 11 years. He currently is CEO of Strategic Management Services, LLC (SM), a firm that has assisted more than 3,000 organizations and entities with compliance related matters. The SM sister company, CRC, provides a wide range of compliance tools including sanction-screening.

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Copyright © 2020 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.